Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Day 1.5: A Listicle of Non-Committal Thoughts From A Bloody Academic Pretending to be on Vacation

Being on vacation as a recovering professional academic is harder than one thought: I still have this itch to read a book I was supposed to have reviewed almost a year ago but I am happy to say that I have controlled that urge.

That said, I am happy to note that I have finally started three different journals: 1. to plan my professional life 2. My health and well-being journal (charting all things relating to the mental, spiritual, and physical. 3. An ideas book (it was something I have kept on and off for the past 10 years, and I found that to be useful because I always get the most interesting ideas in the weirdest places and time (thank goodness to my IPhone for allowing me to sync between my scribbles - now if only I could also doodle on it). These books are still in paper version. I have inherited too many empty notebooks and I am the kind who would rather write on very old yellowing notebooks than throw them away. I don't think I've ever felt the need to buy any notebooks for 10 years, except for that one moment of weakness, at Target, in 2008, when I wanted to be that student who buys stationery. And although I type a lot, I really do enjoy writing, with a pen or pencil (rather than with my index finger or thumb). I find that therapeutic and helps slow down my thought process to get a better handle.

Truly, there is really no name to the position I am in right now. I am renouncing the lifestyle and preoccupations of a conventional academic, but I am not exactly pursuing a postacademic career. I don't know what that means unless it just means that you have a career completely separate from scholarship or your intellectual life? Or well, maybe I am postacademic then, if that is the definition. Probably what I like to do is compartmentalise my life more while still enjoying what I do. Besides, I no longer have the idea that a job I do to pay the bills and save must be something I am passionate about - I just have to enjoy it enough and it must not be in control of my life. My passion and my job can be two different things; but the point is that you are able to separate your personal identity from whatever achievements or failures that come your way, so you do not lose your humanity at the end of the day. I am a born moderate so living life in the extremes makes me miserable. If you are the kind of person who sees the world only in black and white, and from a single-track position, then I really have nothing to say to you, and you should stop reading, for your own sake.

Of course, nobody says that doing it this way is going to be easy - the hardest is having no structure or model to work from. But then, neither am I alien to that sort of life: I attribute my experience in having had to live with a lot of uncertainty and insecurity to helping me create my own anchor, and finishing graduate school in a timely manner despite having some of the weirdest periods of my life prior to my submission and defense.

The oft-repeated refrain of academics is that professional academicism is the only profession they know that allows them to read, write, and teach freely. Maybe I should add a fourth category: to stay above and away from the world. Just because you have to pay rent and bills, have sick family members, and a busted tire, yada yada, that is not the same thing as being in the world, but I digress.  So many academics are too busy to talk about the intellectual content of the work they do or engage in any real discussions on the topic, because they are always rushing hither tether to fulfill whatever competencies outlined in their contracts (or to get another article out or a book published, regardless of whether these get read) - I say that from personal experience as well.  Or, perhaps, departmental or other academic politics suck up so much of their attention that these become the main topic of conversations when academics get together. Or, academics are so hypercompetitive that they spend more time working against other than with each other. The life of contradictions is so pervasive and embedded into many an academic's psyche that everyone else, other than themselves, can see it. To enjoy life only when you have tenure, if you ever get there; what if you kick the bucket before or very soon after? What if you no longer know what enjoying life means by that time? What is enjoying life, anyway? Of course, I am generalising to a fault, but one has to admit that much of the above is true.

That said, there are many great people in academia that I admire, and continue to admire, and it is to them that I owe it to myself not to give up on my dreams and what I want to do just because academic trends, disciplinary constraints, and the preference of the job market insist otherwise. I also owe it to the insights and lessons learned from academic colleagues and seniors who have taken the time to give feedback, criticisms, mentoring, advice, and encouragements to a a rather stubborn junior academic working in the margins and isolation for two years; without them, I would have thrown in the towel and gave up on academics (scholarship included) way sooner.  There are also those in academia who write very stylishly and in a very compelling manner, and these are the ones I like to learn from. Some write very well, with great language skills and good arguments, but even so, the writing is not compelling for those who are not already in agreement with their views and ideas. The day I can elicit a grudging compliment from a hater, I see that as a win. And since I believe that life is all about uncertainty, I am not saying good riddance to academia. I am neither working towards a return nor am I working against a return. In recent months, I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about where I am headed and how my own fears in the past had stopped me from doing more than I could have done. There is no more time for regrets.

Anyway, this post is not going to be another academe bashing piece because the reason I decide to step out into the jungle is to maintain my idealism while living pragmatically. Of course, not doing this from a first world and wealthy country can be difficult (and still difficult even if you live in a first world and wealthy country, because gatekeeping is the order of the day). I have seen too many deaths in the past few years, including that of loved ones, to take life for granted. My late father is a close-to-home example of someone who went from working in a very established and structured environment for decades (with all the benefits accrued to those who decide to spend their entire lives in public service) to becoming his own boss, doing what he really enjoyed and having more control over his own life. It was not something that came easily to him, as there were so many false starts (I grew up watching all those false starts) and failures, and life was hard many times, but his determination, perseverance, and ingenuity allowed him to be the top-ranking manager in his field at the time of his death, all in the space of 15 years, all the while starting up at an age that was twice that of his colleagues; ill-health slowed him down but he would have gone on to do a lot more were he still alive today. Even though I am not doing the same thing as he did, there are lessons to be learned from them: you can stay a failure or not. Recently,  I have spent a lot of time watching business and financial news, and discussions

I end today's post with a bunch of listicles from what I learned from doing and working as a marginal academic.

1. When something doesn't exist, you create it
I did not realise this before, but I finally realise that I have a penchant for working on subjects that do not always fall easily into a rubric. It took me many years to articulate that - I spent much of my twenties trying to be successful in recognisable fields while trying to work out the thing I really want to do but could not name. Then I spent all of graduate school trying to name that thing, albeit unsuccessfully. Now, I can finally name my projects, I realise that they have made me a bit of an outlier - but because everything is so new, I get to define my own field and boundary of research, with a lot of mishaps, mistakes, and errors strewn along the way, obviously. But that's what make them fun. Probably won't land me an academic job, but, whatever. More than once, while I was a graduate student, I have talked to inspiring people who have told me that, when something does not exist, you make it happen (though they weren't actually talking about academia). If only I had thought of this back in the day of the dotcom boom...

2. You can isolate yourself, or you can learn from your world...
When I first finish my PhD and returned to Malaysia because of my failure in landing a postdoc (my visa condition did not allow me to apply for any other jobs other than postdocs) prior to the expiry of my visa, I felt miserable. I thought, that is the end of my work, because I didn't think what I was doing would have any traction here - and that is very true indeed, if I persist in a one-track mind that I can only do what I want to do in a very particular environment. I've proved myself wrong since - I learned to become a pioneer (a very clumsy one indeed), and learning to be more mentally flexible had actually done wonders for me in pushing forward projects I thought had no hope or no more hope.  On top of that, I discovered many newer possibilities that many have either ignored or neglected; now the point is how to sell them and find a way to do them in a way that will do justice to them. We will see what comes out of those in the coming year.

3. Be thick-skinned but not impervious to truths
One the biggest lessons I have acquired as an academic is how to be thick-skin in face of criticisms; to hope for the best but expect the worse. That said, one could take it to the extreme and live the life of an eternal pessimist, or not.  At the same time, as a practising yogi, one of the things I have learned that letting go of negativity does not mean running away from facing the truths; to differentiate between nasty put-downs and sincere criticisms that will make you an even better person. The truth is, we are always so wedded to thinking that we have the best idea in the planet, we find it hard to accept it when we are told that the idea does not amount to much, or that it is a bad idea. An episode of Shark Tank (regardless of what you think of the ideology of the show means) probably is quite revealing. That said, one has to know when one knows that one has a good idea that everyone just can't make sense of, or if the idea itself is something that will limit you.

4. Follow the trend or walk your own beat; or knowing when to compromise
It really depends on what you want out of life really: if getting continuous applause and acclaim is what you like, then you do better to follow a prescribed path. In fact, I really wanted to do that, because really, as rebellious as I may be in some ways, I really do want to please. This is not said with any sarcasm, as that is the hard truth - and because of that, I can recognise the same desire in others. Nothing wrong with that really. The important thing is for you yourself to ask yourself why, and to what purpose. Nobody can do that for you. Compromise, what does that even mean? I have no pat answer to offer here, as it is what I am still struggling with.

5. Be productive instead of talking about being productive (or complaining about not being productive)
I say this as that person who has wasted a lot of personal energy on this in the past two years. I noticed a peculiar trait among academics that usually people will attribute to wastrels: the habit of bingeing on anything. I was introduced to this world while in the second year of my PhD, when I hear talk about colleagues about bingeing on Netflix. Then there is bingeing on alcohol. Then drugs. Then "junkfood." Then whatever else that suits your fancy or fantasy. Even the most religiously adherent have their own binges, I am sure. Maybe those with families are less likely and less able to indulge in such binges but they might have their other coping mechanisms (that is also like a binge).
I say that all of this is a result of living a very extreme lifestyle. No different from that of a bulimic, really. Or even from all those extreme people you secretly watch on Youtube videos (although Youtube and Google know all about your activities). All of that stemming from continuous guilt of non-productivity. Maybe one has to rethink what it means to be productive and does being productive means one has to always do something, and whether it has to do with the fear of silence. I say all these as someone guilty of it all.

6. Enjoy self-care or whatever fun activity you like, and don't feel you need to justify to an ideology or your intellect.
Academics spend a lot of time rationalising and justifying why they do what they do - I have become that kind of a bore as well. We also choose to ignore certain activities because we thought that we are above them (me guilty again). Now, I am just going to learn from those who are so very different from me, even if they make no sense to me. After all, why do I always have to expect everyone to follow my logic (or even lack of logic, sometimes).

7. Take time to read and have conversations outside your narrow field of interest
I don't suppose I have that problem, given my catholic interests, but having the time and giving time to do those is another thing. In fact, I am going back to reading stuff I have neglected, and I look forward to having conversations on those topics. Maybe those outside of academia lack the ability to hold rigorous conversations to the desired standard of an academic, but perhaps, that is not the point in this case. Many academics are not necessarily as rigorous as they like to think; i.e. ask them about their political opinions or ideologies.

That's all for now. I'll write again, on Sunday, to take note of how this vacation has gone. I have some chores to take care of as well, vacation or not vacation.

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